KANSAS CITY, Mo. — On Monday night, in a division-clinching game that kicked off the final series of the season, Miguel Cabrera shook off the burden of chasing a once-in-a-generation achievement and paved for himself a possible place in baseball among men like Ted Williams, Mickey Mantle, Lou Gehrig and Ty Cobb.
It was a perfect, beautiful night for the game in a place that has not seen meaningful October baseball in a very long time. As Cabrera stepped to the plate in the sixth inning, a slump hung round his shoulders, it was true if trite-sounding that a perfect moment settled in.
Time slowed, his bat swung, the ball jumped and then his league-leading 44th home run of the season sailed toward right field and beyond. And a kind of magic — the stuff that perhaps filled the game when ghosts like Ruth and Hornsby still stalked it — rose right up around everyone lucky enough to have been here.
This was history, or at least a real shot at history with two games to go, announcing itself with that sweet sound that only baseball can provide. Triple Crowns and .400 batting averages were the things that sparked awe in fans before steroids took some of that away. They seem, at least to me, even more powerful now that home run records mean almost nothing.
If Cabrera’s moment holds and becomes history, it will not matter if he does or does not win the MVP Award, it will not matter whether he or Mike Trout most deserve the honor, it will not matter whether a Triple Crown is statistically antiquated or perfectly orthodox.
It would be the first Triple Crown since Carl Yastrzemski did it in 1967, something still rare, still remarkable, and so still special all to itself. It would be hallowed — it would be so very cool — in a sport needing some of each.
Even the Tigers victory, which clinched for them the American League Central, seemed almost incidental to the history at hand. Detroit entered the series with a magic number of one, and so getting that job done had seemed as certain as anything can in baseball.
Cabrera claiming the Triple Crown, on the other hand, was much less certain. He had an edge in batting average and runs batted in heading into Kansas City, but he was tied with the Rangers’ Josh Hamilton in home runs at 43. A spurt by Hamilton could sweep away the chase; a blast by Cabrera might be enough to bring it home.
And, as with chasing any kind of greatness, there had been a strain building. He had not said so, but it was there, a weight on him.
Cabrera had entered this series in a slump, hitting a paltry .192 over the past week with only one home run and three RBI.
“It was a lot of attention,” Cabrera said. “A lot of speculation. A lot of talk.”
A lot of pressure.
That home run in the sixth wasn’t just the go-ahead hit in the Triple Crown race. It was a load off of Cabrera, the highlight of a big game that saw the Tigers’ best hitter go 4 for 5 — a hit that helped his team salvage a once-teetering season and turn it into a real chance in the postseason.
And with two games to go, two measly games to bridge 45 years of baseball, the Triple Crown categories now look like this:
Home runs: Miguel Cabrera 44, Josh Hamilton 43, Edwin Encarnacion 42
Batting average: Miguel Cabrera .329, Mike Trout .325, Joe Mauer .322
RBI: Miguel Cabrera 137, Josh Hamilton 127, Edwin Encarnacion and Josh Willingham 110
Enjoy that. We may not see it for another 45 years, if indeed it holds between now and Wednesday night.
Cabrera is not there yet, but he is tantalizingly close, and he said Monday night he plans to play the next two days, even if sitting would ensure the Triple Crown. And while a tie in one category would still count, Hamilton is more than capable of hitting two home runs over his the next two days.
Afterward, holding his daughter in his right arm, Cabrera slipped to a couch. He had little to say, and even less on the Triple Crown that’s now in his reach.
But he knows. And so do his teammates, who celebrate it in their own way even if they don’t overtly speak to the remarkable nature of what Cabrera claiming it would mean. After the win Monday night, his eyes red with tears, manager Jim Leyland campaigned for his guy by claiming RBI is the game’s most important stat.
That, as much as an old-fashioned baseball man will, was a nod to the Triple Crown on a night when the playoffs were now his main focus.
Cabrera was nearby, sitting in the skipper’s office with his family, his daughter perched on his knee, avoiding the champagne-soaked madness in the visitor’s clubhouse and the Triple Crown talk from reporters. Then his teammates started to chant.
Cabrera smiled, almost shyly. It kept coming.
He set his daughter down.
Cabrera, perhaps the only person not yet doused in champagne, stood then walked out of the office and into the clubhouse. He stopped for a moment and his teammates — continuing to scream “MVP!” — crowded together and beckoned him.
Finally, after a long pause, the man so close to the Triple Crown raised his arms in triumph and sunk into the scrum, into the champagne, into the joy and cheers and chants, and into possibility of what he may soon accomplish.